The second pickup soccer match of the season came on a gray spring Tuesday. It was drizzling and cool, and by 6:30 p.m., a dozen or so men had gotten home from work, changed into shorts and walked from their houses over to the brown-green field in their Loudoun County development, a left beyond a glossy red Sheetz gas station and a split rail fence.
As always, Arthur Skaer -- real estate agent, orchestrator, all-around community guy -- came in his Olympic-flag windbreaker and was now yelling, "Antonio! Que pasa?!" at his neighbor, Antonio Duenas, who is originally from Peru and who passed the ball to Falayi Adu, originally from Nigeria. Eventually, the players included residents who once called Morocco, Colombia, Iran, Cambodia, Somalia, Poland, Austria and Finland home, in addition to places such as Alexandria and Springfield.
When summer came, the assortment of nations expanded as neighbors from China, India, Haiti, Jamaica, Senegal, Spain, Ukraine, Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Brazil and Argentina were drawn to the field where once nothing was, and where about 4,700 brick and vinyl-sided homes now stretch along wide, tree-bordered streets, heralded by the wishful sign at the entrance: "South Riding, Your New Hometown."
The scene, an extreme example of the growing diversity of the region's outermost suburbs, was probably noteworthy to demographers, and maybe surprising to people who imagine the rim counties of Northern Virginia as stultifyingly homogenous places. To the men on the field, though, it simply was what it was.
The matches had been going on for a few years now. Self-conscious jokes about couscous, or gringos, or the Somali army had been told, beers shared, hellos exchanged in the aisles of the Food Lion. Mustafa had become Moose. The novelty of differences had largely worn off, in other words, leaving something more ordinary, perhaps, and yet no less significant to the people who live there.
"Last goal . . . !" someone on the field called. "Uno mas!"
They played three more goals, snapped the ritual postgame photo, shirts and faces sweaty, and left.
Jeff Branch, 32, and Farid Elabderrahmani, 33, grabbed their stuff and walked together down the slope toward Edgewater Drive, past kids leaving baseball practice, parents pushing strollers and headlights gliding into driveways after work.
Soccer, the international sport, and more particularly, Skaer, who organizes the matches by e-mail, were magnets that brought the two men together. But so were market forces, a bit of social engineering and the universal allure of a new house with decent square footage.
Elabderrahmani, who grew up in Morocco and Poland, came to the United States as a graduation present after college and decided to stay. He lived in Arlington first, then Reston and Centreville. On Christmas Eve in 2000, he and his wife, who is Peruvian, visited a friend in South Riding. They liked the clean newness of it, the sense of safety created by the self-contained streets, he recalled, and decided to buy a townhouse.
Branch was an Army kid and grew up all over the world but most recently lived in Rockaway, N.Y. He got a job offer in the area and moved with his wife to South Riding the same year as Elabderrahmani. Their reasons were similar: It was a relatively affordable place that approximated their ideal of what a neighborhood should be.
Having moved to a planned community with fields and parks and sidewalks intended to lure people outdoors, it was not quite accidental that the two men, independent of each other, came upon Skaer's pickup soccer match the way many people did: driving past the field on their way home from work.
Skaer, who likes to fling around rudimentary Spanish phrases such as muy bonita and who has an abiding interest in world cultures, welcomed the walk-ons to the nascent team, which was eventually named South Riding United, less for sentimental reasons than as a nod to the world-renowned Manchester United team from the United Kingdom.
At first, Elabderrahmani said, he assumed he'd "have nothing in common with this redheaded guy," Branch. The redheaded guy recalled that he just wanted to play, really. But after a few games, they started to joke around, and, as soccer players do, they hugged after goals. They noticed that they pulled into driveways within eyesight of each other.
"So we started talking," Elabderrahmani said. "You know, 'What do you do? What do you do.' "
Elabderrahmani was working in Herndon for Allstate Insurance. Branch was starting a job running an assisted living facility in Oakton. He had a couple of dogs, and Elabderrahmani offered to come over and help walk them, even though he didn't like dogs. "And that was how it started," Elabderrahmani said of their friendship.
At first, there were questions about religion -- Branch is Catholic; Elabderrahmani is Muslim -- and a curiosity about cultural trappings.
Elabderrahmani, whose wife is Catholic, explained to his friend about certain types of prayers and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and Branch watched him and other Muslim players struggle through matches the month of the fast. Branch lost relatives and friends on Sept. 11, 2001, and the two men had conversations about that day and about the causes of religious extremism.
Elabderrahmani, who has been in this country about 12 years, asked Branch about such things as Social Security, Medicare and the meaning of "dude."
And as the months passed, the two moved beyond whatever initial awkwardness existed and found their common ground. Conversations turned to the intricacies of workdays, women and "Seinfeld."
"The guy is from Morocco, and his favorite thing is 'Seinfeld,' " Branch said. "I'm not a huge fan, but he couldn't stop going on and on about it, and he was explaining to me how funny it is. I'm like, 'I don't get it.' So, things like that come up a lot."
There were cookouts and block parties. They both bought new houses in South Riding and helped each other move, and they have come to rely on each other for smaller favors, drives to the airport or errands. Elabderrahmani helped Branch find a baker who could make a Barbie birthday cake for his daughter, and Elabderrahmani came to the party afterward.
"He just stood off to the side and said, 'Just to see your daughter so excited is great,' " Branch recalled. "Then, at 8 p.m., I get a call, and he wants to walk the dog because he wants to talk about work. It's so funny."
Of his friend, Elabderrahmani just said, "I love that guy."
On Tuesday, the match at Donegal field got going about 7 p.m.
Branch and Elabderrahmani were there, and the assembly included two players from Ghana. Skaer shook their hands and told them to come again.
When Jean Jupiter showed up, someone yelled, "There's a Haitian in the house!"
Off in the middle of an adjacent field, a woman in pink robes was meditating.
Over by a pond, Satya and Vijaya Parakala took a walk with their son.
There was the sound of hammers and power saws in the Amberlea section, where townhouses had signs on the windows: "Future Home of the _____s."
When he thought about it, Branch said his experience living in South Riding has been surprisingly different from his time in New York. Though he lived in Queens County, one of the most diverse in the nation, his neighborhood was mostly segregated.
"In Rockaway, it went from a very Catholic community to a Jewish neighborhood to a very low-income community that was mixed, Hispanic, black and white," he said, noting that people tended to keep to their own areas. "When I first moved to South Riding, we lived in a townhouse, and my immediate neighbors were from Afghanistan on one side and India on the other, and then there was someone who had just moved from Texas. It was really amazing."
Elabderrahmani, who speaks five languages and has citizenship in three countries -- he became a U.S. citizen last month -- said he, too, has been pleasantly surprised by the increasingly international character of the development off Route 50. He said he feels at home there.
"I grew up in a mixed environment," he said. "My dad is Muslim, my mom was Catholic. So I will definitely not feel comfortable if I lived in a place with one background."
South Riding is 10 years old, though newer phases of the development are still being built. The population those phases tends to be more diverse than South Riding as a whole, though hardly as diverse as the soccer field. The development, which has its own Zip code, was about 87 percent white in 2000, about 84 percent white in 2004, and is projected to be about 82 percent white in 2009, according to county data. Last year, 7 percent of residents were of Hispanic origin, 5.5 percent were Asian, 5.4 percent African American, 2.6 percent "two races or more" and 2 percent "other."
"It's a diverse place, but in a way it's not," said Mustafa Omar, 39, a Somali who grew up in Libya and Rome and moved to South Riding by way of New York City and Annandale. "We're still a minority, let me be frank."
He will go to the pool sometimes and feel quite singular. On the other hand, Omar said he was surprised to find any people with similar backgrounds all the way out in Loudoun. He had been driving to the District to play soccer but stopped once he found Skaer's team, which is as international as a United Nations team he once played with in New York's Central Park, he said.
"Now that life is a little more settled, I'm kind of planning my own kind of life in South Riding," he said. "Whether with work, family or a social group, things are falling into place slowly. It's kind of made me think maybe the U.S. is not a bad place."
Broadly speaking, the region's outer counties, such as Loudoun and Prince William in Virginia and Calvert and Charles in Maryland, have had larger proportional, if not numerical, increases in foreign-born residents than inner counties and the District over the past decade. In the outer counties, that population grew by at least 50,000, or 160 percent; in inner counties, it grew by at least 250,000, or 72 percent, according to a 2003 study, based on 2000 Census figures, by Audrey Singer, a visiting fellow with the Brookings Institution.
Many first-generation immigrants, such as Omar and Elabderrahmani, have followed the usual suburban pattern, moving from closer-in suburbs to outlying ones. But there are also growing Indian and Brazilian communities in South Riding, for instance, composed of people for whom the new development was their first stop in the United States, an increasingly common pattern here and elsewhere in the country, demographers say.
If it's a nice evening outside, Elabderrahmani said, "you'll see all kinds of people walking around the block -- that's how you know how diverse it is."
People see one another at block parties or Easter egg hunts, working in the yard or playing soccer in a field on a summer Tuesday evening.
Conversations about religion or culture become conversations about kids and real estate prices and the new deck out back. "They become something else," Branch said. "You lose sight of religion or where somebody's from, and it really comes down to a friendship that develops."